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A teacher at Elkton Middle School addresses students logging into a virtual lesson.

CECIL COUNTY — As many students struggle with remote learning and parents try to balance their own work with their children’s needs, Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) is offering child care in schools to the children of district teachers and staff through a program it calls Virtual Learning Labs.

Associate Superintendent Carolyn Teigland explained that, without a child care option, the district stood to lose hundreds of employees taking paid family leave.

“We have trouble getting substitutes on a good day,” she said. “The reality of the situation is, if we don’t have staff in the buildings, we can’t bring any students back.”

Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed by Congress in March, employees can file for up to 12 weeks of paid family leave if their child’s school is closed and a child care provider is unavailable. Out of 2200 employees, over 70 percent could qualify for this leave, according to Superintendent Jeff Lawson.

“If we stopped the Virtual Learning Labs, all of a sudden you’ve got potentially 1500 employees who could say, ‘I can’t find child care. I’m not coming in for 12 weeks,’” Lawson said. “That would crush us.”

Five percent of CCPS students are currently attending classes in-person, and the district plans to bring back 25 percent in a hybrid schedule starting next week.

Across the district, there are about 150 total students in kindergarten through sixth grade in the labs. All participating students are CCPS students and attend their home school. Administrators stressed that the number of students in Virtual Learning Labs is not a factor in deciding how many students can return for some in-person instruction.

The district shared a commitment survey with families as the semester got underway to gauge interest in returning to school buildings. About a third of families indicated that they would stay fully virtual, and the second phase of reopening will bring back the remaining two thirds of students at 25 capacity.

Students in the virtual learning labs were not part of this calculation. Local and state health metrics, as well as constraints such as transportation, led administrators to decide on a 25-percent reopening, and the number of students who would be in a building at any given moment was not a deciding factor.

Caught off guard by the shift to online in the spring, many parents frustrated with the district’s reopening strategy have sought alternatives — fully-reopened private schools and full-time daycare programs have seen increased interest in enrollment. Others have not returned to work, sacrificing career aspirations and factoring pay cuts into the family budget to stay home with their kids.

CCPS has directed parents to local organizations offering full-day child care and virtual learning support. Lawson acknowledged barriers to scaling up if the district tried to set up Virtual Learning Lab students at one of these organizations.

Virtual schooling presents new challenges, particularly for younger students, such as managing schedules, navigating between classes and homework and understanding course content amid new ways of learning. Parents have expressed concerns that the students in the virtual learning labs are getting a leg up, with a level of engagement that remote students can’t access.

In the virtual learning labs, students are still logging into classes online and completing the same course work as remote learners. They are, however, in the room with their teachers. They attend specials like music and art, which are available synchronously to students at home. They get breakfast and lunch, which are available free to all students through the district’s meal distribution program.

For Lawson, the learning is no different in-person or remote.

“I have not seen a situation yet where we are not having a child in the room seeing and getting the exact same thing as the kids getting virtual,” he said. “Are children face-to-face getting more than those children virtually? Other than the fact that they get to see the teacher physically, the lessons, the content and the attention — my observation is it’s exactly the same.”

Elementary Schools Executive Director Jennifer Hammer lauded the teachers for being flexible and learning a new way of education on the fly. She said educators and district staff have thanked her for easing their concerns about child care with the Virtual Learning Labs.

“Talking to staff members — they are like, ‘We are so grateful for these labs, because it took a huge worry off our plate so that we can get back and teach our students,’” Hammer said. “And it’s been amazing to see.”

Teigland also commended the teachers for working hard to make learning as accessible as possible, regardless of whether students are in-person or remote.

“It’s a challenge to try to figure out how to keep kids engaged when you’re not able to do typical activities,” she said. “It’s been a huge lift for teachers, and they are just doing a fantastic job. I’m just so impressed.”

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